In the chaotic tradition of “Dr. Strangelove”, the controversial “Buffalo Soldiers” based on the book by Robert O’Connor, is another dark cynical look at the U.S. military in mayhem, chaos, and anarchy while being run by psychotic or incompetent officers is a truly odd and some times far out dark comedy that was shelved due to its massive slurring of the U.S. Military as thought by many, though I prefer to see it as a farce of the U.S. Military. Spawning a stir from audiences, some of which becoming violent and screaming that this film was Un-American, It shows soldiers who are so bored during the period of the cold war they’re resorting to drugs, gambling, and violence to ease their boredom, but this film, while sometimes very intense and extremely odd in the area of the Cohen Brothers is a rather enjoyable yarn that should be watched by anyone who loves dark comedies.
It did manage to make me cringe in disgust in certain points, and that’s not a bad thing. I haven’t cringed from a good movie in so long. There are many facts in this film revealed that may have attributed to it being shelved for a few years. Whether shelved because it was pure fact the military didn’t want to reveal, or pure fact so fictitious it was offensive, it will never really be verified. In this, the always entertaining and always intense Joaquin Phoenix puts his personality to use here playing Ray Elwood, a man bored in the military, so bored in fact that he’s a conman and avid drug dealer. Not joining the military by choice during the cold war, he was given an ultimatum: go to jail for six years or go to the military for three years. Ray reveals that the military practiced in recruiting prisoners to join their army or offer them severe jail sentences as alternatives. It’s a fact that’s not entirely far-fetched but nonetheless may have been one of the contributing factors to it’s being shelved. So, Ray, along with a company of violent convicts and average soldiers must kill time without anything to do.
“War is hell, but peace is fucking boring” Ray declares. He is so bored he deals in cons, taking advantage of his superiors, deals drugs to the all the superiors on the base, and even deals black market supplies to the Russian’s whom he prides in dealing with. Ray, or “Elwood” as he prefers to be called, has a small entourage he hangs around with; men who deal with him to make money for plans after the military almost as if they have zero confidence that the military will take care of them once the war is over, a fact that may have been a death sentence for the film. So, Elwood basically has the base under his thumb; he’s a big business man, is living in the lap of luxury while doing nothing as a soldier, and is diddling the Colonel’s (Ed Harris) wife (Elizabeth McGovern), so he’s got it made in the shade. That is until he meets his match finally, coming across the stone-faced and rather intimidating Sergeant Lee (Scott Glenn) who immediately catches on to Elwood’s operation and begins changing things around first enlisting a roommate to Elwood’s room ruining his bachelor pad, seizing all of his money and contraband, and then, forcing him to act like a soldier.
Knowing Lee can’t be bought off and won’t play by the rules, Elwood and he engage in their own war of wits, power, and tricks waiting to see who can give out first, but it’s going to be a hard road because Lee takes whatever he can get and gives it back twice as hard, until Elwood involves his rebellious daughter Robyn (Anna Paquin), and suddenly, it gets personal, and murderous. I was curious as to why this would have gotten shelved so quickly and it’s clearly evident as to the cause of it getting stored away. Not since “Dr. Strangelove” has there been a film daring enough to make the U.S. military look so incompetent and chaotic. Everyone of the cast of characters involved in the military in the film is either very psychotic, murderous, or just plain incompetent as seen in “Dr. Strangelove”, Stanley Kubrick’s classic, and while “Buffalo Soldiers” never comes close to being as excellent, it’s still as weird. Writers Eric Weiss, Nora Maccoby, Gregor Jordan portray much of the military in the film as very incompetent including Harris’ character who attempts to be really professional and boasts about being related to an obscure military officer though deep down he has no idea what he’s doing, or how he even got to his position.
The military officers in the film are often shown as unfit and erratic often juiced up on amphetamines made by Elwood and proceed in wrecking an entire town with a tank that’s being operated by a crew that’s so high they don’t know left from right. They proceed to kill two officers and laugh it off as they wreak havoc in the small town near the base. Aside from the incompetence there’s also the enormous range of psychotic characters including a unit of African American officers led by a psychotic general who is often times very violent and intimidating while Elwood attempts to outdo him and remain one step ahead all the while risking the lives of his friends callously. Elwood stumbles upon some nuclear warheads halfway through the film dealing them to the Russian mafia, and when Lee rigs his deal by moving the warheads, Elwood now finds himself in a heap of trouble now with his life in the balance. Many sequences and plot elements in this don’t make a whole lot of sense. Paquin is often fun to look at and a great actress doesn’t do much in the film despite serving a rather important role.
There’s no background on her and her personality is often very vague with the hint that she’s rebellious though it’s often uneven along with glimpses of other personality traits. We get the sense that she’s devoted to her father, though there are hints again that she dislikes him, though we’re never told why. As for that, the character Elwood’s fear of falling is also never cleared up for the audience. It seems to be a major character trait that would define him but there’s never really a clear answer. Harris who is good in a lot of films has little to do in the film. Though he presents a combination of a Glenn and Phoenix’ paradox, a devoted officer who is getting nothing out of his career, his subplot calls for some more texture and depth, though he is resorted to a small attempt at a comedic sequence with a botched training session. We’re never sure what his true purpose in the story is, and while the film’s last attempts at being dark fail with a predictable last scene, we’re never sure what the character’s purposes and intent in the story were.
Scott Glenn, always one to go to when in need of a psychotic character plays one heck of a villain as Sergeant Lee who resorts to desperate measures to keep Elwood from his daughter; Glenn is memorable in this great cast as is Phoenix who perfects the scheming character of Elwood becoming a main character we can love to hate; the two are exact opposites which is why they hate one another; Glenn’s character is the devoted decorated soldier while Elwood is the lazy unmotivated soldier looking for a free ride. The mood in the story, though mean-spirited is also very dark and shocking including the tank scene, the opening sequence involving football in a room, and the last sequences as soldiers high on cocaine fumes begin fighting one another, and the twisted climax, all of which become one bittersweet delightful package. Weird, twisted, dark, funny, and often very sick, this is a brutally honest and enjoyable film with a great story and good performances from a very talented cast of actors that support the inconsistencies.